The image of fathers in television commercials was on everyone’s mind at the Dad 2.0 Summit in Houston this past January 31 – February 2. According to this article, the Dad 2.0 Summit was a meeting of bloggers who specialize in fathers and fatherhood, and marketing agencies that want to do a better job of courting the growing dad market (New York Times, 2/24/13).
It’s an interesting concept. No one who follows fathers, fatherhood, fathers’ rights, etc. can have missed the astonishingly negative, condescending ways in which male parents are often depicted in popular culture. It’s hard to watch anything, be it TV drama, comedy, ads or film and not be assaulted by the usual stereotypes, almost all of them negative. Dads are by turns incompetent, stupid, uncaring, childish and brutal. The rare instances of portrayal of a decent, loving father are like oases in a vast desert.
So it’s nice that the guys who blog about fatherhood, obviously care about it and know something about it, and those who make up the ads for television are getting together. Some of the bloggers at the Dad 2.0 Summit were the same ones that spearheaded the drive that stopped the Huggies ad series last year.
One of the biggest laments among bloggers at this year’s Dad 2.0 Summit was that many marketers continued to portray fathers as babbling buffoons who need constant supervision. “Dads are seen as heroes as long as their kids don’t drown in the swimming pool,” says Mr. French, who has a blog called Laid-Off Dad.I’m no advertising wizard; Don Draper would fire me so fast my head would spin. So I obviously just don’t get it, but that’s the point – I don’t get it. How does it make sense to market a product to a particular demographic by insulting the hell out of that demographic? It beats me, but apparently that’s what Huggies tried to do. To their credit, they pulled the offensive spots, but what possessed Kimberly-Clark and their ad agency to run the ads in the first place? What were they thinking?
Last year, the daddy blogosphere erupted when Huggies released a commercial that showed a group of fathers and their babies, with a voice-over that said, “To prove Huggies diapers and wipes can handle anything, we put them to the toughest test imaginable: Dads, alone with their babies, in one house, for five days.”
The daddy bloggers were led by Chris Routly, 37, a stay-at-home father in Portland, Ore., who blogs at The Daddy Doctrines. He started a petition calling on Huggies, which is owned by the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, to pull the ad.
“The verbiage was implying that dads need the help of a special product to overcome our incompetence,” says Mr. Routly, whose sons are 4 and 2.
The petition on Change.org drew 1,300 signatures, but Mr. Routly closed it after a Huggies representative called him to solicit advice about making the company’s marketing more acceptable to fathers.
Truth to tell, they probably weren’t targeting fathers, but mothers. After all, the Mommy Market for diapers and childcare products generally, is vastly larger than that of dads. And too much money goes into advertising for marketing companies to be blind to the insult the Huggies ads were to fathers. So I suspect those ads actually made sense; they were aimed at mothers. If I’m right, that strongly suggests that telling mothers that dads are incompetent and that children can’t live without their female parents was the marketing strategy employed by Kimberly-Clark.
There’s a fair amount of evidence that mothers are getting increasingly nervous about the inroads fathers are making into what has long been seen as “their” bailiwick. The resistance to shared parenting is far greater than anything social science would predict, and, with more women in the workplace and more feminists inveighing against (married) motherhood as a legitimate choice for women, mothers are reported to be feeling under the gun from a number of different quarters. So maybe ads showing dads to be incompetent, by default make mothers feel more comfortable, more secure.
But most of the point of the Dad 2.0 Summit was about money. That’s why marketing exists, and that’s why 44 marketing firms attended. On one hand you have those marketers and on the other you have 200 bloggers, each with his claims to reach more unique viewers each day, week, month than the next guy. Some had some pretty imaginative ideas for how to make bank off their blogs.
THE relationship between the bloggers and marketers cuts both ways. The marketers are selling to the bloggers, but the bloggers also have something to gain from the marketers, like sponsorships and branding.“Fatherhood in a way that is funny and consumable.” Hmm. In other words, the guys with the blogs are getting paid by the advertisers to present a particular kind of “fatherhood” that may or may not look much like actual fatherhood. That is, whatever the portrayal of fatherhood, it’s one that’s palatable to Honda, Toyota, Kimberly-Clark, etc. That of course means that the realities of fatherhood that readers of this blog and survivors of family courts know all too well will never appear on those blogs.
Charlie Capen, 31, who blogs at How to Be a Dad, asked Honda, a sponsor of Dad 2.0, to back a project with his blog’s co-founder, Andy Herald, and David Vienna of the site The Daddy Complex. He thought it would be fun to chronicle the men’s 32-hour drive from Los Angeles to the conference in Houston. Honda provided the vehicle, a 2013 Crosstour, and covered video production costs. It will also pay for space to show the video on Mr. Capen’s blog, and for him to promote the video on social media sites, something known as sponsored content.
“The idea is us in the car having a frank and funny conversation about ourselves as fathers,” says Mr. Capen, who is also the director of online engagement at 20th Century Fox. “They are sponsoring us to talk about fatherhood in a way that is funny and consumable.” Neither he nor Honda disclosed further financial details, such as how much the bloggers were paid for the video, which has not yet been posted.
I promise you, car companies and makers of personal grooming products will gladly show happy, cheerful fathers dealing competently with their kids. That’s a good thing, but we’ll never see those same dads in divorce court, called abusers and having their wailing children torn from their arms. No, the nitty-gritty of fatherhood isn’t for the likes of Dove Men + Care. Hey, I’m glad these guys have figured out a way to make good money peddling fatherhood. More power to them. But let no one believe that what you see on a Honda-paid blog is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Which brings up the question “To what extent will those blogs influence public perceptions of fatherhood?” I can’t pretend to answer, but I do know that we say advertising matters to how fathers are viewed. Otherwise, why were we up in arms about the Huggies ad? So if the bloggers at the Dad 2.0 Summit are getting much backing from major corporations, they’re tailoring their message to that backing. They’re sanitizing the experience of fatherhood. To the extent they do that, they’re suggesting to their readers that fatherhood is an easier, more trouble-free endeavor than millions of fathers know it to be. And ultimately, that can redound to the detriment of fathers fighting for themselves and their kids in family courts. Look at the fathers in those ads and on those blogs; they’re not anything like the guys in court whose wives claim they’re abusive and don’t know the first thing about childcare. If those artificial, co-opted images of fatherhood become the norm, it’ll only serve to marginalize real dads even more.
I’m all for improving the image of fathers in popular culture, but let’s not forget the realities that face real dads. Mothers still file for 70% of divorces because they know they’ll get the kids. Mothers still get the overwhelming amount of parenting time; courts still allow mothers to ignore fathers’ visitation time; mothers still do most of the parental alienation, most of the child kidnapping, most of the abuse and neglect and for the most part, get away with it. Draconian child support laws still impact fathers far more than mothers even though mothers are less likely to pay what they owe than are fathers.
That’s the ugly side of fatherhood. It’s a side you’ll never see on a blog that’s bought and paid for by ConAgra.
Thanks to Jim and Ron for the heads up.